This Central American gem can at times be saturated with tourists, so it's worth taking the time to get off the beaten track once in a while. This guide will introduce you to 5 of the most interesting sites away from bustle and banana pancakes.
A couple of hours north of Flores (as the chicken bus flies) lies one of the most exciting – and least visited – sites in Guatemala. El Mirador (The Viewpoint) is the tallest pyramid in the world (counting it's base structure), the ancient centre of Mayan civilisation, and is found among some seriously unspoilt jungle along with a number of other pyramids, tombs and ancient sites. This is likely just the tip of the iceberg, however – as work on this site is relatively new and underfunded, there are likely hundreds or thousands of sites yet to be discovered.
The path to get there is one reason it remains relatively undisturbed: unless you have a helicopter, the only way to reach there is a long 2 day hike through the jungle. Fortunately, several tour operators in nearby Flores run treks with donkeys to carry your food and water; go in the dry season (December to May) and you'll avoid muddy paths that make life a lot more difficult.
The pay-off: sunsets atop a 77 metre archaeological wonder, nights spent camping in the Guatemalan jungle, and all of this most likely enjoyed with only your small guided group - this trail attracts visitors numbering only in the hundreds each year. I assure you, it's worth the occasional blisters and tiredness, and then some.
This Caribbean village is unique in Guatemala – only reachable by boat, it features the only population of Garifuna people in the country, free African peoples who chose to migrate to Central America. As such you can expect plenty of African / Caribbean culture, drum sessions and some slightly more varied food than the standard fare – the local fish soup (Tapado) is a must.
From here you can take a boat downriver to local communities (see below) or walk along the beach to Siete Alcades, a beautiful series of seven pools an hour and a half along the coast. The town benefits from a laid-back atmosphere, and due to its relative isolation still only attracts a relative few visitors.
Ak Tenamit / Finca Tatin
Tucked a half hour boat ride upriver from sleepy Livingston are these two very good reasons to spend a few nights in the jungle. Finca Tatin is a haven of bungalows nestled in the jungle, built literally on the swamp that surrounds it. From the central hub of bar, hammocks and dining hall, raised paths spider-web into the jungle to the private huts and facilities, and the standard is a step above hostel levels of comfort. Food must be bought at the site as the Finca can only be reached by boat; this is both a plus (the quality is excellent) and minus as it can get quite expensive. Stay in the dorms if you're on a budget.
Though the Finca is getting quite well-known on the Guatemala circuit, its nearby neighbour of Ak Tenamit is less so. A Mayan Community project featuring a beautiful school site spread through the jungle, as well as a full-time health clinic serving the surrounding community, it makes for a fascinating visit. As luck would have it, a path leads from Ak Tenamit's school site to Finca Tatin across a small stream (to be avoided in times of heavy rain) and makes for a neat 15 minute venture into the jungle. Alternatively, kayaks can be rented at the Finca for a sedate paddle along the river. Mayan handicrafts can also be bought from the shop, all proceeds of which go to the project.
While hordes flock to Tikal for the most spectacular ruins, take a bus from Guatemala City or Puertos Barrios to the lesser-known site of Quirigua for some incredible carvings and a Mayan site that isn't crawling with tourists from sunrise to sunset. Located in tropical jungle about 4 hours from Guate City, you can stay in the nearby village of the same name to easily reach the site the next day.
Particularly worth the visit are the strange zoomorphs - intricate stone carvings of various forms including a seated Buddha interwoven with various intricate designs, some mythical and some animal. The stelae are the stars though: huge slabs of carved stone built to honour the leader Cauac Sky that tower over the plaza, the largest of which weighs in at 60 000kg. If you like your ruins away from the tourist trail, this one's for you.
For a taste of highland life, this beautiful village in the Eastern part of the country is well worth a visit. Locals still hold to Mayan customs and dress and the area can be a fantastic introduction to Guatemalan life as it was lived long before foreign invaders made their presence known. Though people here have suffered a great deal at the hands of both native and foreign powers, it is one of the safest places to travel in Guatemala.
Although some tourists have discovered the town, venture out onto the surrounding trails and you'll find some extremely fine nature without the crowds. Paths thread between the villages, and guides can be found in Nebaj to lead you if you're not too sure you'll find the way.